Just say no to the digital media agency black box

black box

In what seems like a lifetime ago, I joined performance digital agency with lots of big-name clients. Our value proposition was the holy grail of digital media – “We’ll only bill clients when we drive a sale for them.” And, in a way, it was true. We invested our own money and took the risk that we would drive enough value to win on that investment. We would bill only for sales that were influenced by our media investments. I was sold. Our incentives were aligned with client goals. I would work overtime to manage campaigns to maximize sales and our own margins. We all win, right?

Then the client questions started to trickle in.

  • Which channels are driving the most value?
  • Which creative and messages are driving our sales?
  • How much margin are you taking on my media spend?

I couldn’t believe they had the audacity to wonder about such things. What did they care? The numbers were up! Our party line was (at the time) – “We don’t share our proprietary tactics. If the numbers are trending in the right direction, you should just be happy.” Meanwhile, we’re thinking “What do they care if the media is driving sales?!”

Meanwhile, in the background, we were feathering in cheap traffic like affiliates and lower-quality traffic to skew the overall numbers so it all “looked good.”

The questions the clients were ACTUALLY asking were:

  • “Which channels perform best?” meant “Where does our brand resonate with prospects?”
  • “Which creative and messages are driving our sales?” meant “How can we best position ourselves to grow our market share?”
  • “How much margin are you taking on my media spend?” meant “What does a new customer cost us without management fees?”

We were dead wrong about what clients cared about. We were so far away from being a real partner for our clients.  They weren’t asking these questions to be a pain in our ass. They were asking them because they wanted to gain understanding into their own brand and products.

What favors are performance agencies actually driving? Not much if performance agencies are not letting the clients in on what they’re learning. Agencies pride themselves on being partners to clients. Part of that partnership is growing with the client. That means succeeding, failing, and (most importantly) learning with each other.

I’ve recently met companies who got hooked on the drug of improving the numbers quickly that they were willing to look the other way on what was actually driving those numbers. Like the clients I used to work with, they eventually wanted to know what they could learn about their business and were left holding the bag. In the worst scenarios, we’ve had to rebuild campaigns because the previous agency would not allow these companies to retain ownership of their own data.

If you are a client looking to outsource your digital media buying, you should be demanding:

  • Ownership of your data
  • Full visibility into all media and performance data
  • That your agency be managing to total increases in your revenue-driving conversions
  • To know that your media is placed in brand-safe environments
  • To understand the attribution model that credits conversions to media (does it drive the business?)

If you’re in a similar situation, drop us a line and get a real assessment of what’s going on with your digital media. Better yet, figure out how to bring these specialties in house.

Flywheel Demand

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